Though she grew up with a mother who worked as a teacher, Karen Swann did not want to be one.
Swann’s appointment as principal at Rawls Byrd Elementary School is the latest in an unlikely career arc.
As a student at the College of William & Mary, Swann said she did not originally consider studying education. Instead, she began her career as an economics major.
“I never thought I would go into education,” she said.
That changed after one experience as an undergraduate. For its annual philanthropic project, Swann’s sorority chose to volunteer at Berkeley Middle School, helping students learn about personal skills like etiquette, how to handle frustration and study skills.
Swann had changed her major from economics to English before the project at Berkeley Middle, but afterward, said she said she knew she had to pursue a career in education.
“I never went to the classes I’d originally registered for that semester,” she said. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”
After graduating from William & Mary, Swann completed her student teaching in Hampton Public Schools. She worked briefly in her hometown Spotsylvania County Schools before accepting a teaching position at Toano Middle School.
Swann taught for three years, but said she quickly became interested in administration.
“I was given a lot of leadership responsibilities,” she said. “That developed a desire and love for leadership.”
She took a hiatus from teaching to pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership at William & Mary. Fifteen months later, she received her degree and accepted a position with the York County School Division as the assessment compliance coordinator.
The YCSD job gave Swann her first experience with administration, and when an assistant principal position at Berkeley Middle opened up, she jumped at the opportunity.
After several years at Berkeley, she applied for a position as division hearing officer with WJCC in October 2009. She was ready to accept the job, when the Berkeley principal also accepted a central office position. Not wanting to lose both building administrators mid-year, the district offered Swann the Berkeley position on an interim basis in January 2010. The position became permanent at the end of the year.
Swann spent four years at Berkeley, and said she enjoyed her time there. But when the Rawls Byrd position became available, she was immediately intrigued.
“I’d been at the high school and middle school level, but I didn’t have a lot of experience at the elementary level,” she said. “I wanted to get the full experience.”
Swann said her experience at the middle school and high school level would help in her new position as an elementary principal by allowing her to address issues exhibited by older students earlier in their education.
“At the middle school level, students are still impressionable, of course,” she said. “But elementary kids are still young and growing. At elementary, they’re sponges, wanting to learn whatever we can provide for them. We get the chance to build that foundation.”
For Swann, that foundational knowledge is based on literacy. Although that literacy includes reading skills, Swann said it also includes math skills, vocabulary, knowledge of the world, how to manage relationships and how to be a good citizen.
“The amount of information that they take in is amazing,” she said. “They don’t even realize that’s what’s happening.”
With the laying of that foundation as the goal of the school, Swann said her role was to help students continually improve their academic and personal abilities. To do that, she said she tries to be available as a resource, and when she cannot help, to find the thing that can. She likened her position to the coach of a sports team.
“That’s the analogy that gets used,” she said. “My friends ask me, ‘Don’t you get the summers off?’ I say, ‘That’s the coach’s time to correct the playbook.’”
Swann says her job is to set the game plan for the school year — her season — and call the plays that lead to success and correct the ones that do not. The ultimate goal — her Super Bowl — is to create students who can set and achieve their own goals.
“We want to foster lifelong learning and confidence,” Swann said. “Everyone wants excellence on the SOLs, but we also want to create students who want to succeed.”